Mountain Blood (Bergblut)
Directed by: Phillip J. Pamer
Starring: Inga Birkenfeld, Wolfgang Menardi, Manfred-Anton Algrang, Verena Buratti, Gerd Anthoff
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run time: 120 minutes
[Mountain Blood is playing at San Francisco's Castro Theatre January 16th at 6:30pm as part of "German Gems: A Weekend of New German Cinema" (with three films showing in Point Arena on January 22nd). For a complete program and further information, visit www.germangems.com.]
As Mountain Blood opens, it is the spring of 1809. Franz is strolling through the Augsburg marketplace with his very pregnant wife Katharina. Franz comes upon a wood carver selling statues of various saints and asks the merchant to help him choose one in honor of Katharina’s happy condition. A French soldier, musket in hand, interrupts the congenial exchange, demanding the merchant sell him a statue, now. The soldier embodies the arrogance of the French occupying force, and Franz’s visceral reaction pulls the viewer into the sudden drama. The soldier shoves Katharina out of the way-she falls, and blood streams down from between her legs onto the cobblestone pavement. In a pique of rage, Franz attacks the solider, hurls him to the pavement, and, accidentally, kills the soldier in the process. The couple flees the scene.
Bavaria is an occupied country (Augsburg lies in Bavaria). Napoleon’s army is on the march across Europe, and the German-speaking lands are but the first conquered territories to the east of France. This is a problem for Katharina and Franz. In the next scene, the couple breaks the doubly bad news-the abortion and the murder-to Katharina’s father, who advises them to flee from Bavaria.
Details of the political climate are laid out through the storytelling. The German-speaking viewer, however, is clued in even more deftly. Katharina’s family all speak with the local Bavarian accent, but her husband Franz speaks with a very heavy Tyrolean accent. (Tyrol lies to the south of Bavaria, way up in the Alps of what is now Austria.) Bavarians’ and Tyroleans’ arch-enmity prefigures French occupation. Katharina must give up her family and her comfortable urban bourgeois existence to go and live with her husband’s people–poor, uncouth, and unwelcoming of outsiders, especially Bavarian outsiders. This is another problem for Katharina.
The film settles into its story, of how Katharina (Inga Birkenfeld) came to live among her husband’s people. In some ways the film echoes the biblical story of Ruth. It is also the story Franz (Wolfgang Menardi) and his brothers, more faint echoes, this time of Joseph and his brothers. Bavaria and the Tyrol are both deeply Catholic cultures.
In fact, Mountain Blood is a variant of the German genre film known as the Heimatfilm. Popular in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria during the post-war era, roughly the late 1940s through the 1970s, the Heimat (“homeland”) film is set in the country, typically in the forested mountains, foregrounding the virtues of rural living. Loyalties of family, friendship, and romantic love are played out in a sentimental manner, against a backdrop of simplified morality. Blood Mountain is no Gone with the Wind, however. The family dynamics between Franz and his brothers is complex, as is Katharina’s relationship with both womenfolk and men folk in her husband’s family. In the typical Heimatfilm, the “good guy” wins the affection of his heart’s desire. Her life’s tale is of Jobian proportions.
There is another, historical layer to this film. This family drama is playing out within the context of the Tiroler Volksaufstand (Tyrolean Rebellion of 1809). The local village butcher is a man by the name of Andres Hofer. Hofer is constantly stirring up the local peasants to resist Napoleon’s approaching troops, who threaten to rush in from Bavaria to the north. To them, Katharina embodies the despised Bavarian collaboration with the French. The Tyroleans are nothing if not defiantly proud and independent-minded people. Much of the film alternates between the private fortunes of Franz and his brothers, and the skirmishes and battles led by Hofer against the French. Against all odds, Katharina seems to win the respect of the Tyroleans, and Hofer quixotically succeeds against the French and Bavarian invaders.
Every German school kid, and many an American history buff, knows the ultimate outcome of the peasants’ uprising. The Heimatfilm buff may take pleasure in the maturation of the genre as exemplified in this film. And it should be noted that this is one of two recent films made in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Tiroler Volksaufstand. (Der Rebell, a 1923 film by Luis Trenker, was the first to deal with this subject matter.) Katharina is more devious, and certainly far more complex, than Scarlett O’Hara. And the anti-French seeds Napoleon sowed in Central Europe would bear much more problematic fruit for the world than what the American Civil War wrought.
This is riveting drama, even if you know the history. The actors are thoroughly commensurate to their roles, though subtlety is lost in the translation. And above all, it is a very beautiful film (shot on original locations), for it is ultimately an homage to what it took to be a Tyrolean-poor, pious, rugged, hard-working, proud yet humble, and willing to die for one’s country. This sort of story has proven a challenge to German filmmakers in the wake of the legacy of Hitler, and film director Pamer handles it magnificently.